INTERVIEW: Saint Etienne | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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By the time you read this, getting into the Christmas spirit will make a lot of sense. You’ll have been busy working out what to get for who, making your party plans and starting to feel like you’ve already had more than your fill of the Fenwick’s window before the big day. But when I got the chance to speak to Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne about their upcoming Christmas mini-tour which takes in Sage Gateshead on Tuesday 8th December, it was a bright, light September lunch hour. Even with this slight disadvantage though, he proved as charming company as you might expect, as we talked about the upcoming tour, the changing nature of the Christmas pop song and what lies ahead for Saint Etienne.

Discussing how their latest Christmas venture fits into a history of festive activity from the band (most famously their Tim Burgess featuring single I Was Born On Christmas Day), Stanley notes, “it’s become a semi-regular thing for us over the years. I always enjoy it because my birthday’s on Christmas Day, so it feels like having a big birthday party! A Christmas gig feels kind of unpressured – people just want to have fun, they’re not stood there arms folded expecting your new masterpiece. It’s an excuse for a party really.”

Although the setlist was not so much under wraps as non-existent at the time I spoke to Stanley, he still gave me a couple of hints of things we could expect alongside the sprinkling of oldies and Christmas songs you might assume from this jaunt. “We’re also putting A Glimpse of Stocking [a compilation of Christmas-themed Saint Etienne covers and originals] out on vinyl this year because it’s only been on CD before – it’s not the reason we’re doing the shows, but it’ll be there if people want it. We might also have a surprise to give out at the gig, but I don’t know what that is, because we haven’t done it yet, so we’ll have to see…”

Speaking of Christmas-related releases, Stanley’s got some firm favourites in mind. “Being the age we are in Saint Etienne, we were kids when the big glam Christmas era happened, which I think probably affected us. If you’re younger, that’s not necessarily something you’re inspired to do. But then there’s so many Christmas records coming out now: you don’t have to press anything, so things can just go online. It seems like there’s more than there ever were, and there’s some great ones. There’s an of Montreal one called Christmas Isn’t Safe For Animals which I love, and there’s the Low one Just Like Christmas which is a new standard really. They’re all very varied: the one thing I’m not that fond of is the maudlin Christmas ballad, which seemed to be the main thing for a long time and now people are after more up-tempo stuff again. Every year I try and make a Christmas compilation by just going through Spotify and YouTube and finding songs I haven’t heard before, so it never ends when you’re listening to hundreds and thousands of them…”

A Christmas gig feels kind of unpressured – people just want to have fun, they’re not stood there arms folded expecting your new masterpiece. It’s an excuse for a party really

In addition to planning Christmas compilations and gearing up for the tour, Stanley also has an on-going side career in writing and music criticism, which resulted in publication of his mighty pop history tome Yeah Yeah Yeah in 2013. “The book I’m working on at the moment is about the birth of popular music, going back to the time of the first records and looking at how music publishing and sheet music started and the early mechanisations of the music industry that got us to where we are today. It’s really the birth of pop, which I’m fascinated by, and I’ve never read a book that explains it: there’s lots of books on early jazz and Cole Porter, but I haven’t read one which ties it all together and explains how it happened. It’s the same as with Yeah Yeah Yeah – because it’s not there, I thought that I should do it myself.”

Having spent a couple of years largely focused on individual work – Sarah Cracknell on her recent solo album Red Kite, Pete Wiggs on film and soundtrack work including How We Used to Live and Stanley on his writing – these Christmas gigs also mark the start of the Etienne machine gearing up for another burst of activity. “I’m quite looking forward to writing some new songs and going out and playing them, because it’s always exciting to play stuff for the first time and see how it goes down. We‘ve been talking about doing a new album: at Christmas it’ll be 25 years since we first recorded with Sarah, so that feels like a proper anniversary, and I’m sure we’ll be doing anniversary sets of Foxbase Alpha, So Tough and Tiger Bay in the next few years as well, but we want something new. As it goes on it becomes more like a hobby – I’ll still be writing the book and Pete’s working on at least one other soundtrack as well – so there’s a lot less pressure and you can take your time more and enjoy it. There’s nothing set in stone, but we’ve definitely been talking about writing and recording new songs.”

Saint Etienne play Sage Gateshead on Tuesday 8th December.

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